What to look for in a computer monitor
What’s the difference between TN, IPS, and VA panel technology?
You’ll frequently see the terms TN, IPS, and VA while shopping for a monitor. These terms describe the basic panel technology a monitor uses. Panel type impacts many aspects of image quality, including color gamut, contrast, and black levels.
TN stands for Twisted Nematic, and it’s the oldest type of LCD panel technology still used today. Although inexpensive, TN panel technology struggles with color accuracy, color gamut, contrast, viewing angles, and maximum brightness. The falling price of newer technology has crowded TN panel technology out of the market. I recommend avoiding any monitor that still uses a TN panel.
IPS, or In-Plane Switching, surged in popularity after the turn of the millennium and is now the most common option in PC monitors and PC laptop displays. IPS panels have a solid color gamut and good color accuracy, and some are very bright. However, they can’t display deep, inky blacks and instead depict dark scenes as a hazy gray. This is called “IPS glow.” It’s a problem if you intend to watch movies on a monitor but is much less noticeable in other situations.
VA, or Vertical Alignment, has surged in popularity over the past five years. VA panel technology is roughly equal to IPS in color gamut and accuracy but far superior in contrast ratio. A monitor using this technology can offer darker, more convincing black levels, eliminating the “IPS glow” problem. VA panels have a limited viewing angle, however, which can be a problem if the monitor is not always viewed straight-on.
Most monitors on this list use IPS panel technology. That doesn’t mean IPS is superior, however. In general, IPS panel is best for productivity and general use, while VA is best for gaming and entertainment though there’s significant overlap. In many cases, a monitor’s recommendation is influenced by other factors that aren’t connected to panel type, like resolution, brightness, and, of course, price.
Do you really need a 4K display?
Our pick for best computer monitor under $500, the Dell S2721QS, has 4K resolution. To be precise, it provides a resolution of 3840 x 2160. This is identical to any 4K television. Computer monitors are much smaller than televisions, so even 1080p resolution is tolerable on a 27-inch monitor. A 4K monitor is far superior in sharpness, however, which does improve day-to-day use.
You might expect this only matters for movies or games, but the opposite is true. A sharp, clear image is most important for day-to-day use. A 4K monitor can display details, like small fonts or tiny interface buttons, without losing clarity. The result is a more versatile display. You can decrease the size of fonts or windows to fit more on your monitor or blow them up to make them more readable. Either way, the results will look better than 1080p or 1440p.
4K isn’t a necessity, but it’s a great feature to have.
Do you really need HDR?
HDR, or high dynamic range, is a standard designed to improve the contrast in movies, games, and other content. It can make bright areas of a scene brighter, and dark areas darker, creating a more dramatic, brilliant, and realistic image. But you don’t need HDR on a monitor in 2021.
Unfortunately, the computer monitor market is struggling to embrace HDR. Even the best monitors achieve a peak brightness level below budget HDR televisions. Computer monitors also rarely offer effective local backlight dimming, a feature that lets an LCD display selectively turn off portions of its backlight.
HDR content is more difficult to find and use on a computer than on a television. The PC versions of popular streaming services, like Netflix, often have limitations on HDR, and graphics hardware that’s more than a few years old may not support the standard. Even the best HDR monitors struggle because of inconsistent software support.
What is contrast ratio, color gamut, color accuracy, black level, and gamma?
These terms are often used to describe a monitor’s image quality. They might sound intimidating, but they describe basic traits that anyone can appreciate.
- Contrast ratio: This is the range between the darkest black and brightest white. A higher contrast ratio leads to an image that appears more realistic and provides a greater illusion of depth. The higher, the better.
- Color gamut: This describes the total range of colors a monitor can display. The display industry uses several standard color spaces, like sRGB, as agreed benchmarks. A monitor’s performance is described by the percentage of a color gamut the monitor can show.
- Color accuracy: This is a monitor’s ability to show colors precisely as they should appear according to industry color standards. Here, a lower result is better, with higher results indicating a larger variance from the agreed standard.
- Gamma: This describes how a monitor handles luminance, with various gamma curves described by numbers. An image will appear darker as the gamma value increases. Monitors designed for everyday use generally target a gamma value between 2.0 and 2.4.